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Coming Together at a Shelter from the Storm

Mike and Kathy Schaeffer, the volunteer Red Cross managers of the "Five Star Shelter" in Gulfport, Miss.
Howard Berkes, NPR
Mike and Kathy Schaeffer, the volunteer Red Cross managers of the "Five Star Shelter" in Gulfport, Miss.

Hurricane evacuees all across the gulf coast are moving out of shelters today, especially those housed in schools. The buildings are needed for the start of classes, a big step toward normalcy for children. But moving makes some evacuees anxious.

In Gulfport, Miss., Hurricane Katrina brought more than 200 strangers together at Orange Grove Elementary School, including including two dozen who huddled together during the storm, then helped organize their temporary home under desperate conditions.

Bill Lykins, an installer of custom cabinets and closets, says many people there lost everything.

"But material things can be replaced," he says. "These people in this room now, we're family. It's not friendship, it's family. And that means a lot. I mean, I may never see the people after we leave these shelters again, but they're going to be my family until I take my last breath on earth."

The group calls their refuge the five-star shelter, because it was a good place to be. Leadership came from Iowa transplants Mike and Kathy Schaeffer, who had finished a Red Cross class on managing shelters three days before Katrina arrived.

At the shelter are 18 Hondurans, including Jose Francisco Andina, whose story is told elsewhere on this page. They were plucked from the floodwaters of Pass Christian, Miss., by helicopter after surviving the worst of the hurricane. They believe they may be the only people who survived the destruction of an apartment complex washed away by the storm.

The storm and the shelter gave people an experience that one veteran in the group compared to going through combat together. As they prepared to leave for new, larger confines -- amid a celebration with ice cream and chocolate cake -- there were mutual congratulations and vows to stay in touch.

"I hope we can still hold a pact amongst ourselves," hotel clerk Jerry Foster told the group. "I feel like you have my back... Just try not to lose this feeling that you have tonight, OK, tomorrow or the next day when we have to leave."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.